March 2, 2012 § 5 Comments
Ava Chin, Dawn Raffel, and Marion Winik
Disclaimer: This panel did speak about getting published, building an audience, and although at times difficult, making a little money. Or in Marion Winik’s case, a lot of money spread out over a long period of time. As a long-time friend and former student of Winik, the business end of writing creative nonfiction is something I’m familiar with. Still, Ava Chin’s reminder to write the things you’d write even if you were to never get paid was refreshing. And Dawn Raffel’s look into creative nonfiction from the editor’s perspective was instructional. But as a teacher of creative nonfiction, I find myself struggling to define the genre on a regular basis. For me, it is that obscurity, the seemingly endless possibilities of the literary personal essay (which can barely be contained in a definition itself), that makes the form so exciting and worth discovering. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make my ambition to get undergraduate students excited to write personal essays any easier.
The Red Lacquer Ballroom was an airy and elegant space filled with plush chairs and carpet and regal chandeliers. The sessions I had attended earlier were held in overcrowded, claustrophobic rooms seemingly hidden in a labyrinth of dark hallways and hidden doors. They had flimsy-looking plastic chairs that I didn’t actually get to sit in. The ballroom’s high ceilings and eclectic décor seemed to be a great metaphor for all the things I love about the literary personal essay. I felt more perceptive in that room, and that I suppose helped me come closer to finding a new definition for this genre I find so necessary, yet difficult to explain.
“The number of stories is finite, but people and feelings are infinite,” said Dawn Raffel.
Raffel’s point speaks to many of my own frustrations. What makes a topic worthy of writing about? What will readers care about? What hasn’t already been done? Regardless of genre, stories with similar subjects were told long before many of us will sit down to write ours. The personal essay is less about the subject, though, and more about the persona of the author as subject. When asked what she looks for in work, Raffel was adamant that it is not an exceptional plot or subject. What makes creative nonfiction, namely personal essay, important—unavoidable—is voice. Our perception as authors, observers, and emotional beings is what forms a connection with the reader and makes Rafell, “see [her] life in a different way.”
“Style is important too.” To Winik, creative nonfiction writers care deeply about craft. “We are stylists,” she said. The often described connection between poets and personal essayists is no accident. Words matter. Tone and tempo matter. “Readers want to see you, or a person, on the page.” The literary essayist offers an authentic representation of herself on the page. This authenticity, combined with respect, admiration, and deft concern for style make the form relevant.
It may be that a clear definition, one that fulfills all of our needs, can never be had. The form itself is too complex, too malleable. Many of us have come to know what it means to have that freedom, that open door to personal discovery; we get it. For others, like those undergraduate students of mine, the message is less clear. But I did get a bit closer.
The personal essayist takes in and processes through feeling and emotion. The personal essayist then recreates, structures, and shares in the most articulate, authentic way possible. The reader takes in and processes emotionally, as well. Feelings are important. People process and feel things differently. And that’s where the power of the form comes in because, “… people and feelings are infinite.”
Vito Grippi’s work has appeared in The York Review, Nightlife Monthly, Unsung Hero and Fly Magazine, among others. He co-edits the online lit mag, shaking like a mountain.
March 1, 2012 § 1 Comment
By Allison Schuette
Ava Chin, Dawn Raffel, Marion Winik
I’m sitting here at the Corner Bakery not far from the Palmer House, trying to refuel for the second half of the day. On my left, a woman is negotiating with someone about adoption (going that way, with the whole enchilada, would be too expensive); on my right, another woman eats salad while reading the news. (She looks like another AWP attender, at least of one sort: sensible shoes, loose scarf, soft turtleneck, ah, yes, and the ubiquitous lanyard.) I’m eating my own salad: spinach with oranges, grapes, strawberries and goat cheese. I tried to order this salad as a combo, you know, like they serve at Panera. No deal. You want the half sandwich, you’re stuck with just greens. And I’m a sucker for goat cheese, so I went with the salad. But now I wish I’d just gone with the Panini. The salad doesn’t live up to its name.
That’s almost how I feel about Prettying Up the Baby. What I expected: a panel on how you take your CNF manuscript and tweak its cheeks into a ruddy complexion that publishers will coo over. If not that, then a panel on how you think commercially without selling your soul. Instead I got a panel on how the field of freelance writing has changed.
I blame myself. I didn’t read the description in the big AWP book, only the title from the easier-to-manage planner. Maybe I should have spent a little more time with the menu at Corner Bakery as well. That doesn’t mean, however, I left totally unsatisfied. Here are a few morsels.
- · The market today presents far more opportunities for writers (good news!), but at less pay (bad news). In addition, the stuff you love to write doesn’t earn the kind of money that service pieces do (advice columns were mentioned twice). Winik recommends asking for more than you think you should ask for; editors won’t hang up on you.
- · The opportunities of the Internet have had a positive impact even on print. Readers expect personalities online and this has transferred to the page; magazines don’t edit down to the house’s voice. You get to keep a bit more control over your work.
- · Online presence is absolutely necessary now. Publishers and editors will ask how many friends and followers you have. You need an online brand to push and promote your materials—use Twitter, Facebook, a blog.
- · All the writers affirmed that you should write what you love and persevere in it. This commitment will lay the path for where you need to be, and it will keep your soul alive.
And now I think I’ll go order a cookie.